Zimbabwe: Is the basket case finally on the mend?

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In some places, long-forgotten public services have stirred. Rubbish isbeing collected, and workmen have even been seen painting white lineson the pot-holed roads. Gone are the bread queues and the snaking linesof cars awaiting black-market fuel. The sugar, soap, cooking oil andeggs that arrived in minibus convoys from Botswana to the west, ornorth from South Africa, can now be bought locally.

Printed price tags, consigned to folk memory during the nightmare ofhyperinflation, have made a tentative reappearance in some shops as thedisappearance of the Zimbabwean dollar, and its replacement with the USdollar and the South African rand, stabilises costs. In smarter areassuch as Borrowdale, where President Robert Mugabe has his walledmansion, or Avondale, where the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai,lives, the shelves of supermarkets are stuffed with imported goods.

In so-called "high-density suburbs" such as Glen View and Warren Park -townships built under white rule as holding areas for cheap blacklabour – the schools have reopened, with teachers back at work afterending their five-month strike.

"I am happy for now, since I’m now able to get $100 [70] per month,which is more than what Mugabe was giving us," said Ncube, a teacher inNorton, outside Harare. "The good thing is that prices of basic goodshave gone down drastically, and having US dollars is meaningful."

Since Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) agreed tojoin Mr Mugabe’s government in January, education has been run by DavidColtart, elected last year as an opposition senator.

Does this mean Zimbabwe is at last turning the corner after a nightmare12 months in which the country was engulfed by political violence, theeconomy collapsed and basic services deteriorated to the point wherecholera, an easily preventable disease, was rampant? One answer mightbe that, in some respects, things have at least stopped getting worse.

Political intimidation is down, and most prominent government opponentsare out of detention. Even Roy Bennett, the gruff former farmer andoutspoken Mugabe critic, has been released on bail to join his MDCcolleagues in the new government, although the President told cabinetcolleagues that he would "never" swear in his old adversary to hisappointed role as deputy minister of agriculture.

The World Health Organisation had some good news about the choleracrisis last week. An epidemic that long ago surpassed its worst-casescenario by a third, with 90,000 infections, was "past its peak", theUN agency said. As the rainy season ends, the expected drop in newcases has come, slowing from 3,800 a week to 2,000 by mid-March. "Thesituation with the cholera outbreak is improving," the WHO said fromits headquarters in Geneva.

Senior members of the MDC have used such developments to argue that itis time for the international community and Western donors to re-engagewith Zimbabwe. That process may well begin at a regional summit whichopens tomorrow. Zimbabweans have received forceful support from SouthAfrica’s president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, who described the refusal tohand large sums in aid to the Mugabe-led government as "very unfair tothe Zimbabwean people".

Mr Zuma, who is poised to take office after the South African electionon 22 April, said last week: "You cannot say [Zimbabwe] has stabilised,but it has entered a phase of stabilisation politically."

The unity government was the only option, claimed Mr Zuma: "There wasnothing else." He even had unprecedented words of support forZimbabwe’s 85-year-old President: "When there was an election, it isnot as if not a single human being voted for Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He hada very big percentage himself."

What if donors do not heed Mr Zuma’s words, and fail to support aprompt peace dividend to ordinary Zimbabweans? The country’s widelyrespected new finance minister, Tendai Biti, was in no doubt. "Theconsequences of it [the unity government] not working are drastic," hesaid. "It will lead to a failure of the state, a collapse of the stateand all the civil unrest that follows the failure of a state."

Some diplomats viewed this as a threat, but most understood that suchan outburst, from the man commonly viewed as the most capable thinkerin MDC ranks, reflects the increasing desperation in his party. Theformer opposition understands all too well that the image of recoveryin Zimbabwe is false.

Mr Biti and his colleagues no longer speak of the "benchmarks" they setwhen entering the new government, by which those outside it could judgeits progress and the good faith of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.

Those criteria are worth recalling: the release of political prisoners,the appointment of new regional governors, the sacking of both theattorney general and the reserve bank governor, the restoration of therule of law, and an end to farm invasions. Only one of those benchmarkshas been met in any meaningful way: even then not all prisoners havebeen released, and those that have are on bail, still facing trumped-upcharges.

This explains the reaction of a team from the International MonetaryFund, which said last week there would be no new investment until thegovernment changed its "track record". The next day a fresh commitmentof $10m from Sweden bypassed the government in Harare and went straightto humanitarian agencies.

There remain virtually no jobs outside the state sector, andremittances from the three million Zimbabweans working abroad – acrucial lifeline for families left behind – are in decline as theglobal recession squeezes hard. While "dollarisation" has meant awelcome return of goods and services for those with access to currency,for the majority it has spelled disaster. There is practically no moneyin the system, and the government has been forced to switch from cashpayments to civil servants to coupons, most of which are now beingrefused as banks do not have the cash to redeem them.

The experience of Rumbi Kazingizi, a housewife, is frighteninglycommon. "Food is still not easily available," she said. "Although it’snow cheap, where to get the money to buy the food is the biggestchallenge."

A mother of three from the middle-class Glen Norah area, Mrs Kazingiziadmits many are worse off. "We have orphans and widows who are failingto get even a dollar per day," she said. "How are they expected tosurvive?"

Meanwhile the farm invasions, so long an accurate indicator of theintentions of Mr Mugabe’s political allies, have intensified. With themthe uncertain nature of the junior partner’s role in government becomesclearer. While the finance minister appeals for outside funds, hisZanu-PF colleagues in the cabinet sign off paperwork allowing freshfarm seizures, and the Prime Minister rages against "land thefts". Andwhile Mr Tsvangirai and his allies find they are responsible fordelivering progress, with their own political credibility on the line,they are facing a bitter realisation: they have given the powerfulclique around Mr Mugabe the political space to carry on regardless.

Zimbabwe by numbers

100 US dollars is the monthly salary for a teacher

2,000 new cholera cases each week; down from 3,800

5bn US dollars needed to kick-start the economy, according to Morgan Tsvangirai ($2bn of which is needed immediately, he says)

94% is the current, estimated rate of unemployment

4,000 people killed by the cholera epidemic since August 2007, according to the World Health Organisation

The Independent on Sunday(UK)

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